Sunday, September 12, 2010

Race Talk

You may know that I'm teaching a course on race/racism at a local graduate school of social work in Boston. Before the class started I gave them an assignment that I thought I would share with Baha'i Thought readers and see what you have to say.

I'd like you to think of a time where you participated in, or witnessed a really good conversation about race and/or racism. Specifically, you should describe the characteristics that made this such a good conversation.

If you cannot think of a good conversation about race and/or racism to describe
you can describe a bad conversation instead. What made it so bad?

Bring it on readers!


  1. I have one example in mind. I've had some great conversations with a prominent conservative columnist, whose views on race are very much different than my own. What is striking is that he does not try to defend the indefensible, and always insist that his party line is correct. He acknowledges racism when he sees it, and does not try to deny its existence, yet presents the conservative viewpoint from a sensible and reasonable place. Politics and race are pretty much inseparable in America right now, so we will have to confront the politics of it at some point. This person's approach moves the conversation forward, to a more neutral ground where people can discuss solutions.

    Another example is with another conservative person I met when he responded (quite negatively) to a story I wrote about the Henry Louis Gates arrest. This person is not as accommodating as the columnist. We have been talking by email for 15 months now. We have reached a place of mutual respect and trust so that we can say difficult things and know that they are not malicious or intended to hurt the other person. I have learned much about the beliefs and thought processes of people like my conversation partner (white, 60s, Southerner). You have to understand how other people feel and really give them the space to express themselves in order to really dig into these very difficult racial issues.

  2. Mohammed5:29 AM

    I had a conversation with a Baha'i friend about this, last year. She said that although she was raised in the concepts of race unity, oneness of humanity, she would still find herself being afraid when she saw groups of black men walking down town. She felt bad about this.

    I asked her some questions. I asked her if she would feel the same way if the black men lived in her neighborhood, and were walking together. She said no. I asked her if she visited that particular downtown location, often. She said no. I asked her if she has any beliefs about "inherent" qualities of a particular race. She said no.

    I then said that maybe what she was experiencing was a "fear of the unknown" rather than overt prejudice. Human beings have a natural tendency to be cautious when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. If we're not used to seeing people of a particular ethnic background in large numbers, we might find ourselves feeling threatened when we encounter said situation.

    We then talked about how although this cautiousness is natural, and that it's not necessarily something to be ashamed of, it should not end there or be used as a justification for prejudice or racist beliefs. We just wanted to get it out in the open that sometimes people have those fears when encountering people of a different race, but it doesn't mean that it defines everything about us, or that it's something we're proud of. We just recognized something about ourselves.

    Then we talked about the concept of continious exposure. If there were no racially prejudiced beliefs motivating and causing the fearful reaction, then perhaps having more exposure to the people and areas would lead to feeling more comfortable around them.

    I said that I developed a practice when entering a neighborhood or community where I am the minority race. I envision myself as being a raceless human being, or I envision transfiguring myself into their race so I don't feel like an outsider who will be attacked.

  3. I think the best conversation I saw was on PBS. I believe it was titled The Color of Hatred. It was very difficult to watch and extremely powerful.

    It was good because everyone and their feelings were validated. That was the hardest part of the conversation. It is difficult to listen, truly listen, to someones pain, anguish, and perspective without becoming defensive. But it became quite clear that until that was accomplished then no real discussion of racism could occur.
    Once that was accomplished then it became a conversation of like minded people with mutual respect and trust.
    It wasn't about who or what was correct, but about the perceptions of what racism was.
    I believe that until we allow ourselves to truly listen, that there will be no end to overt and perhaps even worse, covert racism.

  4. I think whenever you can sit back and realize how profound a conversation was, its positive. So I will share this keeping this understanding in mind:

    One of my best friends got robbed by some teenage Black kids while attempting to deliver pizzas. He fought them off with all he had, but eventually lost the pizzas. As he told this story to us, his friends, I could sense his anger, but also the fear just beneath the surface. So, I simply said, "Well, don't ley that incident take away your love for the Black man." Fast-forward about 2 years later and we're all hanging out together and talking. Semi - out of the blue my friend said, Hey Jamar, "Remember when I told you about getting robbed by those kids and you told me not to let that affect my love for the Black man. Well, I needed to hear that because I was so angry that my mind was going there. Thank you so much for that."...When I heard this I responded in some way, but the whole time I was biting my lip trying not to get emotional. I said that with no intention of making any kind of difference, I was really saying what I said just to help him move on from it and not dwell on it.

    This was so profound to me, because it reminded me that you never know how your words said in passing can really affect someone. But it also let me in on something that is a little disturbing, and that is the fragility of black/white tolerance. It doesn't take much for any of us, black or white, to soak up the residual hatred in our social atmosphere and use it for soul-defeating purposes. Sorry so long.

  5. Anonymous11:33 AM

    Phillipe, it is interesting that you have no takers here.

    Could it be because most conversations about race are not truly conversations, rather people talking "at" each other? Perhaps--and I offer this tentatively-- we might reflect on what could be done, in general, to facilitate a true exchange of ideas, feelings and actions on challenging topics such as race, as opposed to our typical exchanges, where folks attempt to get things off their (our) chests, lecture, or even try to enlighten or inspire others?
    Judith W

  6. Thanks everyone for sharing their thoughts and my apologies for not being more on top of moderating them. Things have been a bit busy! Keep the comments coming, we need to hear more about good race talk.

  7. I recall an incident that occurred in, approximately, 1970 in Schenectady, NY. I was at a party in someone's home and had drifted into the kitchen. Two black men about my age were there and we began talking. They mentioned that a white man like me would never understand how life was for them. I replied that that may be true, but I had been thrown in jail twice for having long hair and a backpack ("hippie freak") and beaten once; so I had some idea of life outside the prevailing culture. They responded that I could always cut my hair and pass, but they would always be black.
    While this conversation went on, a middle-aged black woman entered the kitchen and stood to listen. After a few more minutes of the young men bemoaning their state, she stepped forward, looked down at the two, and said "You're not black... you're niggers!"
    This taught me much on many levels.

  8. Anonymous9:04 PM

    Hello, Reed,
    O my!
    Thanks for jumping in. 40 years is a long time. As an older, white woman, I, too, have reflections on the evolution of my consciousness about "the most challenging issue", as well as why it still remains so.

    Your story raises a lot of questions for me, the first one being: Do you consider this a good or bad race conversation? And why?

    My understanding of what you have said thus far:
    You are at a party to enjoy yourself, and somehow "drift" into a race conversation with two men. As it progresses, none of you feels listened to or respected as human beings on planet earth-- in this particular conversation, and, to varying degrees, in your lives in general. The conversation doesn't seem to be going anywhere productive. Since it is "two against one", you feel you are the minority in the kitchen...
    Enter a person of another generation and gender. I would guess you felt vindicated, or something like that, when, though black, she jumped to your defense. But, a big but, she did it by "looking down at" the two other young men, referring to them as "niggers." From the context, I believe the woman used the word to chastise/shame them as a synonym for "ignorant" (which could spark another conversation in itself). So my next question, and what to me is the crux of the matter: Did this lead to greater understanding and unity between the three (or four) of you, or the opposite? Was yet another dimension of misunderstanding added between the woman and the young men--generational, and, possibly, class? And did the chasm between you and your age peers widen or lessen? What happened next?
    Judith W.

  9. Judith,
    I found the experience to be profitable. What the older woman was saying, in her direct and forceful way, was that the habit of looking upon yourself as a "victim" engenders self-pity and animosity toward any who don't acknowledge your victimhood.
    That time period was the beginning of the rush in our society for everyone to claim victim status. I am not denying that people individually have suffered and that shared suffering can serve as a bond; but when past injustice is nurtured and watered, the growth of the individual is hampered.

    The woman didn't come to my defense, she was giving those young men a much-needed "dope slap". She cared. She cared about the opportunities for personal advancement that those young men would miss if they spent their time wallowing in group grievances (no matter how factually legitimate) instead of standing up as individuals and making a life for themselves -- thereby drawing others up as well. She cared that the men were painting their futures with the colors of the past; creating bleak self-fulfilling prophecies, admitting defeat before the first shot is fired. Instead of being men who are black, they were being black men... big difference. She saw the distinction, I believe, and wanted them to see it too.
    I hope this has answered your questions.